Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Religious Hoopla

Verbum Ipsum discusses recent books on the burgeoning American "theocracy" and smartly cites this right-on passage from the American Prospect regarding the usually alarmist liberal take on the supposed ascendancy of the American religious right.

Does any of this really matter? If the danger is so great, is hyperbole or inaccuracy to be counted perhaps not as a vice but a virtue?

It matters, first of all, because it deflects attention from what remain the major sources of the Bush administration’s disastrous and ominous policies, perfectly secular rationales for trimming government, cutting taxes, opening the door to torture, circumventing congressional and judicial oversight in establishing secret surveillance programs, and relying on military strength while belittling international institutions.

These approaches had percolated for years in conservative think tanks, among K Street lobbyists, and on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. Can anyone really believe that the administration’s energy policy would have been different absent the speculations of end-times theology? K Street and the lingering doctrine of supply-side economics, not Christian Reconstructionists and biblical inerrantism, drive the administration’s fiscal follies. The officials sending the United States to war in Iraq -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby -- did not come from the religious right, let alone the larger evangelical constituency. One can always trot out the regrettable figure of John Ashcroft to prove the religious right’s ascendancy in the Bush administration, which makes as much sense as pointing to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to prove the ascendancy of blacks.

Abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, teenage sexual abstinence, the public display of religious symbols, the teaching of evolution -- these are the issues on which conservative Christian beliefs are the driving force and that enable the organized religious right to get traction among evangelical and conservative Catholic voters, who end up, more passively than not, buying into the rest of the Bush agenda. However much these issues exercise liberals and the left, they are also issues that the Bush administration has generally addressed in cautious, halting, inconsistent, or purely token fashion.

This is about as clear as it gets on one of my principal worries about the present state of American politics. While much of the liberal blogworld, mass media, and op-eds bemoan the popery of the Bush administration and its zealous acolytes, the administration uses religion as both an instrument of division and a red herring which liberals tend to fall for by allowing religious matters to become divisive.

Spraying the bullets hits the Catholic social justice tradition; it hits those like the mother of a good friend of mine - a conservative Christian who has difficulty reconciling her missionary values of battling poverty with the policies of the administration; it hits people on the left who happen also to be religious. I don't mind at all when they hit a religious hypocrite. But a generalized criticism of religion shoves a number of more progressive religious views onto the side of the table with the nut-job views and hypocrites. I also don't care about the uniter/divider language in the US. It's healthy that we have different views. I have no idea what a "united" country would look like, but I really don't like what I suspect it would look like.

I'm an evolutionary thinker and I cringe when schoolchildren are subject to the contrived claims made by Intelligent Design proponents and the politics they bring with their belief. I worry about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but this has turned out to be a nonstarter with this administration and Congress. I worry much less about decreased funding for stem-cell research. It isn't a total ban on the research; it's a limit on government funding of the research. Suck it up and wait for the next administration. But there simply aren't that many signs that the religious right has made a significant impact on policy other than, perhaps, by providing the president with a faith-based mindset that overlooks inconvenient truths and realities through sheer tenacity and a sense of infallibility. Delusions receive their comeuppance eventually through the shock of reality.

The United States is, like it or not, a religious country. There is little point when it comes to religion or other "final vocabularies" of trying to convince the true believers that they're wrong. Their criteria of right and wrong, true and false, tend to be embedded in the belief-systems. Admitting the falsity, incoherence, or improbability of such a set of beliefs would require shifting one's faith to the critic's set of beliefs. Unphilosophical, yes. Unscientific, yes. Common, of course... and I'm also speaking to a liberal or any other position held onto through tenacity or unquestioned authority.

Politically smart liberals should be focusing on the very real, concrete, and consequential policies and the very real, substantive criticisms that can be made on these softballs. The administration and its scions use techniques of demagoguery to avoid these criticisms. One of them, I think, is to encourage liberals to spend their time battling against essentially marginal religious beliefs, utterly ridiculous blog and news outlets like Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Fox News, and putting their intellectual energy into the wrong issues, such as stem cell research funding, boobs, and whatever the administration and its minions come up with as the issue of the day.


troutsky said...

OK ,there is truth in that, but having just spent four years living in the "bible belt" where people recieve their politics from the Baptist church (like communion)I also think it a mistake to underestimate the cultural weight they have or it's undermining effect on civil society.Or, to use the hyperbolic form, they are creating droids! From Islam to political Islam was no great leap.I say confront religion and if the poor ,sensitive believers can't take the heat,to bad.

Anonymous said...

I never had a pleasure to live in the U.S., so, I take troutsky's words seriously. However, your take on the effects of religion on political issues was brillinat.

helmut said...

I lived in central Texas for nearly a decade and got the same stuff. It used to annoy the hell out of me, but mostly because I couldn't understand how someone could think something so wrong.

Your point about civil society is a subtle and very good one. There's a big difference between direct influence on a government and the environment that is created in which people vote, write their representatives, raise children, etc.

Mike the Mad Biologist said...


I'm not really worried about the far extremists (yet, anyway). But I do worry about voters who say things like:

There are some people, and I'm one of them, that believe George Bush was placed where he is by the Lord," Tomanio said. "I don't care how he governs, I will support him. I'm a Republican through and through."

It's the utter mindlessness and the willingness to ignore the consequences of someone's actions simply because they have been defined as "good" that scares the hell out of me.

helmut said...

Mike - that quote is about as stupid as it gets. But we live in a world of incredibly stupid people. I just don't know how far one can go in convincing a stupid person to not be stupid. That's what I'm saying for the most part.

On the other hand, if more than just the random stupid voter thinks like this, we're basically simply doomed. To portray the political struggle as one about these kinds of people, it all seems pretty pointless. I suppose I hold out some hope that this is a small minority, despite its (unproportionately, I hope) loud presence in the blogworld.